How far should a pastor go to make a point?

Pastor Michael Todd faced a flurry of criticism for a sermon illustration he employed on January 16, 2022. Todd is the pastor at Transformation Church in Tulsa, OK. He spits into his hands and rubbed the spittle over the eyelids of his brother, who had agreed beforehand to participate. Todd was re-enacting the story of Jesus healing a blind man, as told in Mark Chapter 8.

The response on social media was overwhelmingly negative. “The audacity. The cult energy. The spiritual and theological abusiveness… I don’t know a word for this, but it ain’t nice or holy or pastoral or good,” said one observer. Others used terms like, “demonic, manipulative, dehumanizing, and abusive.” A university chaplain called it, “a disgusting display of theological and homiletical malpractice.”

Todd later apologized and promised not to do it again.


What we expect from our pastors

Putting aside the question of whether it’s wise to share spit during a pandemic, the negative reaction to this sermon illustration reveals much about our expectations surrounding church services.

Christians don’t mind hearing Bible stories that are grotesque or challenging to our sensibilities. If the pastor simply talks about beheadings, mass circumcisions, and tent pegs driven through temples, we’re A-OK. Christians will reverently watch gruesome movies such as “The Passion of the Christ” that depict the unspeakable on screen.

But to see the raw, visceral events of the Bible re-enacted before our eyes (especially in a church building) sends us into a tizzy. To see Christian history embodied is too much for our delicate sensibilities.

Our comfortable, climate-controlled church buildings have given us a false impression of what Christianity is. We gather weekly to hear a nice, encouraging, dignified, and culturally appropriate gospel presentation. Anything that deviates from this norm is treated with suspicion — or horror. The very idea that we would see something offensive in the church is, well, offensive. Any pastor who would present such a thing is assumed to be a publicity hound or a manipulator.

We’ve so sanitized Jesus we’ve forgotten what a controversial man he was. In John chapter 6, Jesus said something so revolting every one of his disciples (except the 12) abandoned him. His own family thought he was insane. The religious experts concluded he was possessed by demons. He preached in a synagogue, and his message was so shocking his hearers seized him and carried him to the edge of a cliff to throw him off. In an act that appears horrifically sadistic, Jesus allows a close friend to die a (presumably) painful death so his rotting corpse can be resurrected. Christ brazenly admits he set the whole thing up as an object lesson.

Pastor Todd didn’t pull a stranger off the streets and spit on him. He didn’t make this story up as a publicity stunt. He was trying to embody the gospel narrative – to make it come alive on stage. If Christians can’t handle a re-enactment of an uncomfortable Bible story, how will we handle genuine persecution?